Time for a Pennsylvania “Tea Party” (of the vinous variety)

52 - Liberty Bell

Lettie Teague’s recent excellent Wall Street Journal piece on the tyranny of Pennsylvania’s Liquor Control Board (PLCB) focused on its injustices to the state’s restaurant industry. But individual consumers also suffer mightily from its stranglehold on the wine market – so much so, Pennsylvania wine-lovers should consider fighting back just as restaurant sommeliers are starting to do.

(I pick on Pennsylvania because I spend a lot of time in the Philadelphia area and have experienced the PLCB-driven wine market. Residents of the various other states with hard-to-navigate wine laws have similar motivation to lobby for change.)

As Teague points out, Prohibition never really ended in Pennsylvania; the ambit of its banned behavior merely shifted. If you want to consume wine in Pennsylvania – at home, in a private club, in a restaurant – it’s supposed to come from a state store or, in limited circumstances, from an in-state winery or certain out-of-state retailers and wine clubs with proper licensing to ship to Pennsylvania consumers. The law includes a $25/bottle fine for individuals who carry wine purchased elsewhere across the state line, but enforcement has effectively lapsed, spurring fed-up consumers in the Greater Philadelphia area to “wine-mule” cases purchased at New Jersey and Delaware wine superstores home in the trunks of their cars.

Pennsylvania’s restraints on consumer choice put up speed bumps to securing the most competitive prices and interesting selections, although determined Keystone State oenophiles will seek out those retailers and wine clubs that deliver to Pennsylvania. And, by the way, I haven’t unearthed a magic algorithm that determines who these sellers are. Examples: New York-based Sherry-Lehmann does not ship to Pennsylvania consumers while Super Buy-Rite in Jersey City does. The Wine Cellar @ Red Bank (New Jersey), which supplies several wine clubs including WSJ Wines and Virgin Wines, cannot ship to PA, but Lot 18, in Mahopac, NY, includes PA on its delivery list.

So, while savvy and diligent wine consumers can take heart from the increasing ease of buying good product from outside Pennsylvania (driven perhaps by the state’s fear of losing an interstate commerce challenge on constitutional grounds), for their local purchases they are stuck with the PLCB state stores. This is where I dream of a citizens’ uprising.

The state is disinclined to relinquish the cash flow it reaps from this monopoly operation, Teague rightly notes. The previous governor, Tom Corbett, tried but failed to muscle a privatization bill through the legislature and incumbent Tom Wolf shows no interest in reform. How can it hurt – a collaboration of consumers and restaurateurs making a stand against the PLCB system?

In the meantime, residents and visitors, don your rose-colored glasses: the onerous rules that lead to sky-high prices on Pennsylvania restaurant wine lists have also created many BYOB establishments. You can wine and dine extremely well in Philadelphia at a fraction of what you’d pay in New York City – especially if you want to protest the system in your own modest way by bringing a bottle from your favorite (out-of-state) wine store.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/64487725@N07/14505752118″>Liberty Bell</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/“>(license)</a>

The Opposite of Simple

In ranging across the world of red blends, if Ménage à Trois Midnight—a one-note wine lacking nuance—sits at one end of the spectrum, then I propose a candidate for the opposite end: Château Cabrières Côtes du Rhône Villages 2012.

51 - Chateau Cabrieres Cotes du Rhone Villages

I single out this wine because I tried it recently, and was duly impressed. But any of a wide selection of Côtes du Rhône Villages would suffice to demonstrate my point.

Côtes du Rhône Villages is a mid-point category, in terms of price and quality, in the southern portion of France’s Rhône region—a step above wines labeled simply Côtes du Rhône and below those from specific vineyards or vineyard areas (e.g., Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Gigondas). Wines in the Villages category generally offer superior power and complexity for the price (many in the $14 to $18 range).

This wine from Château Cabrières, a producer perhaps best known for its Châteauneuf-du-Pape, stayed interesting and delightful from first sniff to last sip, which in my case covered something like a 10-day period. (Oddly, the chateau’s website does not promote its Côtes du Rhône Villages bottlings.)

From the initial pour, my nose picked up chocolate while I tasted dark berries overlaid with, I swear, sausage and oregano pizza! Some ash, some earth emerged as I drunk my way happily through the bottle.

The flavors evolved continuously. If you enjoy conjuring up aroma and flavor analogues to what you’re drinking, this wine—a 50/50 blend of Grenache and Syrah—will keep you busy. While I don’t recommend keeping a bottle open (even in the fridge, even VacuVin’d) as long as I did, I must admit that my last glass remained fresh and unoxidized.

I’ve found similar complexity in other Côtes du Rhône Villages. For two years I’ve been working down a multi-bottle stock of Domaine de l’Obrieu’s 2009 Cuvée les Antonins Visan* Côtes du Rhône Villages (*Of the 95 towns or communes in the southern Rhône eligible for the Villages designation, Visan is one of only 16 that can include their name on the label.) It’s going on six years of age—time to drink it up, the wine charts say—but I can report that, so far, the Visan’s body and distinctive flavors have yet to flag.

Round Midnight?

Yes, it’s round enough, and soft on the palate, the 2013 Ménage à Trois Midnight. But also lacking in subtlety, short on finish, and generally one-note syrupy.

50 - Menage a Trois Midnight

In other words, it’s hard to recommend this California label’s “high-end” red-blend selection for anything other than as an inexpensive party wine (and you can find better wines at lower prices even for that modest purpose).

I paid $15 at ShopRite for my bottle but would have done better to trek to Buy-Rite, which carries it for $11.

More than one respected wine-review source had waxed enthusiastic about the dark-red Midnight, touting it as a breed apart from (and a dollar or three higher than) Ménage à Trois’ standard Red Blend—so my curiosity overcame my snobbish aversion to the label and I put this wine on my to-try list

To be fair, Ménage à Trois—the brand is under the Trinchero Family Estates umbrella—meets a huge swath of market demand—for simple, goes-down-easy, not-expensive wine. And if their offerings serve as a gateway for novice oenophiles to more complex, better-made blends and varietals, hooray to Ménage à Trois.

Ménage has recently expanded its line from generic red and white blends to varietal-centric blends starting with Chardonnay and now including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc; they even make a Prosecco. Only the Cab and Merlot are priced above their blends ($12 at Buy-Rite); some day maybe I’ll try them.

Wine can’t save Greece (but something else might)

Ancient Greece was the center of the wine universe. Contemporary Greece is on the verge of economic collapse, with households and businesses struggling to stay afloat amidst the government’s potentially imminent default on its debt. Can the Greek wine industry play any measurable role in getting the country back on its feet?

Not likely.

49 - Greek stadium

Undeniable, however, is how far the nation’s wine industry advanced in the last three decades of the 20th century. From a tradition-bound, domestically-focused business, Greek winemaking modernized on several fronts. A sophisticated appellation scheme was created, designating four levels of quality.

Grape growers and wine makers trained abroad and returned home to implement new techniques and put unexploited land into cultivation, in turn attracting outside investment.

The quality of the final product improved, previously-obscure native grape varieties began to shine, and exports climbed—although Greek wine exports remain a tiny fraction of those from powerhouse producers like France. In 2014, a lower-than-normal volume year for the region, Burgundy alone exported some 279 million bottles of wine. Exports from all of Greece in 2007 (the most recent figures I could find) totaled some 46 million bottles.

Producers that can are continuing to export despite the financial crisis, giving U.S. oenophiles access to good and interesting Greek product—at restaurants like New York’s Thalassa, for instance (whose wine list, sadly, is not currently posted on its website), and from retailers with a deep international bench. Merchants like Sparrow in Hoboken and Sherry-Lehmann in New York offer a virtual tour, via local reds (Xinomavro, Agiorghitiko) and whites (Moschofilero and Malagousia), of Macedonia and the Peloponnese.

But many aspects of a modern, export-oriented wine industry seem to have gone dormant in Greece in recent years. It is difficult to unearth up-to-date production statistics. A website called Hellastat that used to publish Greek wine import and export numbers is defunct. The Athens Chamber of Commerce and Industry posted an informative account of domestic wine production, consumption and exports, but it covered the late 1990s and was published in 2005.

Adding to the country’s, and its wine sector’s, economic woes, lousy weather in 2014 cut last year’s production by between 15% and 30%, depending on the region.

The country’s dire straits make it difficult to thrive in the wine or any other business in Greece today. Wine lovers may have to wait for a better economic climate to attract the entrepreneurs with the drive and enthusiasm to reinvest in the industry.

Until that day, I can’t resist reviving an old proposal for Greek restoration: make Greece the permanent home of the Olympics. With prospective host cities losing interest because of the enormous investments and disruptions required (case in point: Boston for 2024), and some previous hosts regretting the expenditures made for now-idle infrastructure, the time may have come to shake up the IOC system and build permanent Olympic facilities in Greece.

Just imagine how much Greek wine those biennial hordes of Olympic visitors would consume!


Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/7365466@N05/8508798191, http://photopin.com, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/


Crémants redux

I’m giving a thumbs-up to French non-Champagne sparkling wines (aka Crémants). The Louis Bouillot Crémant de Bourgogne rosé ($17 at Sherry-Lehmann) was on my recent to-try list, and did not disappoint. Lovely pale-coral hue in the glass (apologies for the poor-quality photo), softly effervescent with a hint of watermelon and cream on the palate, it offers an inexpensive alternative to a rosé Champagne.

48 - Cremant glass (2)

No disrespect to Champagne—it can provide some of your most delightful tasting experiences—but at typical Champagne prices, it is routinely consigned to special occasions. (If the euro continues its swoon, however, those prices for U.S. customers will eventually—maybe as soon as late 2015—fall, a moment we await impatiently.)

In the meantime, drink more sparkling wines, more often—whether from France or anywhere else that is producing it. They pair spectacularly with many foods. And sparklers offer variety that many of us have not yet explored.

If you only stick with French Crémants, you’ll find a lot to choose from. Manhattan’s wonderful Chambers Street Wines, for instance, currently has on hand a Burgundy Crémant, Tripoz, made from 100% Chardonnay ($26) and a rosé from Jura, Bodines NV Arbois ($24), that blends Pinot Noir, Trousseau and Poulsard.

Crémants from Alsace are popular. Conjure an alsacienne Pinot Blanc or Reisling, but in bubbly form. Sherry-Lehmann carries an Albrecht Brut Blanc de Blanc from Alsace for $17. Loire winemakers are also producing sparkers.

So, aside from not commanding their price premiums, what sets Crémants apart from their Champagne cousins? Since the same méthode champegnoise is commonly employed across producers, it comes down to terroir and, usually, grape varieties. (Burgundian Crémants will more closely match the varietal blends of Champagne—Chardonnay and Pinot Noir—than those from other French appellations.) Sample a few and decide what you like.

New to me in 2015, part 1

I gravitate to the familiar as much as anyone. I reorder the South African Chardonnay that is so delicious (and affordable), pick up another bottle of that California Pinot Noir I love, and seek out a particular Provençal rosé when we’re on the cusp of summer.

But I also crave the new, or what’s new to me, anyway—whether it’s a varietal, an appellation, a producer. Trying what is unfamiliar is essential to one’s personal wine education, and thanks to today’s wine marketplace—which delivers an ever-broader selection of wines from the around the world—that education is easier than it’s ever been.

Here is my current short list of new-to-me wines I’m planning to drink over the next few weeks. What I think of them may shape the next iteration of my to-try list.

47 - Louis Bouillot Cremant de Bourgogne

  • Crémants – You can’t call them “Champagne” but they are French and sparkling . . . and so much cheaper than their exalted siblings from the Champagne region. Crémants hail from regions like Alsace, Burgundy and the Loire, and their grape composition reflects those regional origins. Right now in my cellar: a Louis Bouillot Crémant de Bourgogne rosé and Thierry Germain’s Bulles de Roche, a Loire crémant from the Saumur appellation.

47 - Thierry Germain Bulles de Roche Saumur

  • Portuguese reds –In the wine world, Portugal is more than Port, Madeira and Vinho Verde (which can be red or white—“verde” in this context connoting young, unaged). But until recent years U.S. wine consumers have had limited access to the country’s diverse offerings. Lately I’ve spotted Portuguese rosés and reds on local wine shelves and I’m curious to taste them. I’m starting with an inexpensive 2012 offering from Lavradores de Feitoria, based in Douro, the home of port but where red tables wines are now getting a foothold.

47 - Lavradores Douro

  • California reds with deceptively awful names – The Crusher and Ménage à Trois Midnight are the ones I’m seeking out. Priced in a comfortable $11 to $14 range, I’ve read and heard positive reviews of these dark red blends. The Crusher is Cabernet-dominant, while the vintage 2012 “Midnight” is a Merlot-Cab-Petite Syrah-Petite Verdot blend. The 2012 and 2013 vintages were stellar in California for reds, which could make these wines an extra-great value.

What “new” wines are in your rack?

Más Besos to Bierzo

My introduction to Bierzo, a relatively new (est. 1989) appellation in northwestern Spain, came through its white wines, made primarily from the Godello and Doña Blanca grapes. But Bierzo’s reds are easier to find in the U.S. and well worth seeking out.

Bierzo reds, like the wines of Ribera Sacra, are based on the Mencía grape—although Bierzo’s wines tend to be fuller and juicier than those of its neighboring DO to the west.

Although Mencía is an ancient grape said to have been brought to Spain from France in the Middle Ages, its vines were decimated in the phylloxera plague of the 1800s. The chance to revive Mencía vineyards along with the challenges of cultivating Bierzo’s steep, rocky terrain—and, no doubt, the lower cost of land here—seem to be attracting talented, ambitious winemakers.

45 - Petalos close-up

A leading house of Bierzo, established in 1999, is Descendientes de José Palacios, producer of an affordable star of the region, Pétalos del Bierzo. (BTW, José was the patriarch of Rioja’s Palacios Remondo winery. His “descendents,” both of whom trained in Bordeaux, are son Alvaro, a top winemaker in Spain’s Priorat appellation—L’Ermita is his signature wine, and grandson Ricardo Pérez.)

Descendientes de J. Palacios’ vineyards are in the town of Corullón, on the western edge of Bierzo, where they cultivate their vines biodynamically. They produce small quantities of several single-vineyard reds priced from approximately $55 to $175.

And then there is Pétalos, an impressive entry-level offering for the price (the 2012 is currently available at Sherry-Lehmann for $19.95). Depending on the vintage, Pétalos tends to range from 95% to 100% Mencía. The 2011 vintage earned a 92 rating from Wine Advocate; the 2009 was ranked #26 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list for 2011.

“I love this wine!” I said aloud as I drank the 2011. It was soft and beautiful but complex on the palate, with notes of dark fruit and flowers.

The Bubbly Debrief

With Bubbly’s biggest night* behind us for another year, I’m pausing to assess the three sparklers—fittingly, all of French origin—we drank over the holidays. Here is the line-up:

44 - Gruet, L'Ermitage, Grande Dame

• Gruet Brut “Champenoise” Gold Label – This New Mexican star held center stage on Christmas Eve, paired with a meal of one fish/two ways (chilled shrimp cocktail followed by garlicky shrimp scampi)—my modest take on the traditional Seven Fishes feast. $16 at Sherry-Lehmann.
• Roederer Estate L’Hermitage Brut 2003 – To accompany an array of cheeses and charcuterie, we started the December 31 festivities with this Anderson Valley, California, offspring of venerable French Champagne house Louis Roederer. Priced around $40-$45, depending on the retailer.
• Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame Brut 2004 – Saving the best for last, we popped the cork at midnight on this Veuve Clicquot classic from Champagne’s stellar 2004 vintage. A deal while it’s still in stock at Buy-Rite in Jersey City for $120.

44 - 3 corks

The Gruet family brought their Champagne-making experience with them from France to the New World in the 1980s, after discovering promising, high-altitude, inexpensive terroir around Albuquerque. Like all of their sparkling wines, the Gruet Brut is aged for a minimum of 24 months. Tasting of apple cider, it’s not a complex wine but stands up well with food. At this price point, I’ll have it again—and seek out Gruet’s other sparklers.

L’Ermitage along with L’Ermitage Rosé are the high-end lines of family-owned Roederer Estate, produced only as single-vintage cuvées. The 2003 earned high marks across the board from the usual critics: Wine Enthusiast 96, Wine & Spirits 94, Wine Spectator 93. If you can’t find this vintage, look for the 2005. My first sips were peach-infused, then a hard-candy lemon-drop flavor settled in. The minerality was just right.

44 - Roederer, Grande Dame caps

La Grande Dame was the favorite Champagne of a now-deceased friend and oenophile, but since we’d somehow never tried it, this was the obvious choice for ringing in 2015 when we spotted it in Buy-Rite’s Champagne cabinet. The 2004 is a refined Champagne, with lemon and minerals on the nose and the palate. The initial uprush of bubbles after opening was misleading, as it quickly subsided into a gentle effervescence. Wine Spectator conferred 92 points on this beauty.

These three wines span a range of price points, from everyday to special-occasion, and I can recommend landing on each one of them. Cheers!

*While New Year’s Eve is unlikely to be dethroned from its perch as the time of maximum sparkling-wine consumption, why not resolve in 2015 to drink more of it more often?

Feeling wine-ish

It was inevitable: the health-promoting ingredients of wine will soon be available for sale in a dried, powdered form. No glass or corkscrew needed.

Equally inevitable, I suppose, is “diet” wine: delivering the pleasures we expect from a standard white, red or rosé, but to a lesser extent.

When I saw the recent news story previewing nutritional supplement Vinia, my first thought (why didn’t I think of that?) was followed by a second thought: oh, a funless way to consume something I associate with pleasure.


Vinia, the first commercial offering from Israeli biotech firm BioHarvest Ltd., is a resveratrol-rich, non-alcoholic powder made from red grape cells. It’s due to come to market in September, packaged in single-serve envelopes.

(Interesting side note: BioHarvest, founded in 2007 as Fruitura Bioscience Ltd., announced in January it is relocating its R&D operation from Tel Aviv to Albany, NY. The company hopes to produce an array of “superfoods” made from its patented method for growing fruit cell cultures.)

I’ve reacted to lower-cal, low-alcohol wine with similar disinterest. “Lite” wine can be produced naturally, by harvesting the grapes earlier than normal (when sugar levels are low) and/or unnaturally, through chemical manipulation of alcohol levels or even the addition of fruit juice.

The results are slightly-reduced calorie counts and as much as 50% lower alcohol levels. For instance, one producer specializing in “diet” wine, Skinny Vine, says its three products, Moscato, Chardonnay and Zinfandel, contain 85 to 95 calories per 5 oz. portion and have alcohol content ranging from 7.3% to 8.5%. California-based Skinny Vine is owned by Treasury Wine Estates, now the object of a takeover tug-of-war. U.S.-based Skinnygirl offers “lite” wines and cocktail mixes, and some mass-market wine producers, particularly in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, have created sidelines of low-alcohol wines.

Apparently there are fans of these “diet” wines, and some of them may taste fine. But, to me, altering wine’s natural form and properties to achieve a secondary purpose diminishes wine’s essence.

We justify our enjoyment of the things we ingest by finding reasons they are good for us. Can it be okay not to have a reason?


What to pair with your hard-boiled egg

Have you ever approached your lovely lunch, dinner or snack of perfectly-hard-boiled egg with the question, what the heck kind of wine can go with this?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, do you know how to perfectly prepare a hard-boiled egg?

42 - egg 

This post is really an excuse to promulgate the consummate technique for such preparation. And, thanks to the recent retreat of the anti-fat food police and reinstatement of the egg’s good reputation, surely you are eating eggs again (if you ever stopped).

Julia Child, in The Way to Cook from 1989, introduced me to this recipe. It is not difficult but requires patience and close watching of the clock to time each step properly. Be sure to have that ice bath ready and waiting when you pull the eggs out of their “steeping” water.

Child didn’t take credit for the recipe, which she noted was developed decades ago by the Georgia Egg Commission. (Sadly—because who knows what other excellent tips and techniques may have issued forth from it in the future—said commission was disbanded last year by a vote of Georgia’s egg producers.)

If you can’t access Child’s cookbooks, you can find the instructions here on food.com. A tweak I recommend to the master recipe is to peel the eggs while slightly warm; I have found the shells don’t lift away so easily once the egg is cold.

And, for a slight variation along with shorter sitting time in the just-boiled water, see incredibleegg.org. Note: the original recipe calls for piercing to ¼” the large end of the egg with a needle or pin before placing it in the pot for cooking, while the revised version warns against this step, on the grounds that a non-sterile needle can introduce bacteria into the interior. I’d say, sterilize your needle first and pierce away!

As for that wine, white for sure. I conjure up a beautiful match between my beautiful egg(s)—which I prefer to eat freshly made and still somewhat warm—and a simple white Burgundy. I’m thinking Mâconnais—a Mâcon-Villages, Saint-Véran, Pouilly-Fuissé or Pouilly-Vinzelles.

42 - white wine 

Alternatively, a clean white from Spain, perhaps an Albariño or Godello; a Verdejo or Rioja Blanco.

In any case, a soft, non-grassy wine (I’d stay away from most Sauvignon Blancs) seems the ideal pairing for a late-summer eggy repast. Enjoy!


Wine glass photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dcbauer/3485439452/ Danielle Bauer, http://photopin.com, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/